Artists Barry Stebbing and Frank van Latum took the fateful plunge last July 3, setting up their easels next to a scenic lighthouse in Maine and putting the first brush strokes on the adventure they had dreamed about for years.
Ten months later, on a warm May afternoon at Baltimore's lush Sherwood Gardens -- 33 states into their "Paint the States" odyssey -- they knew they could paint anywhere, under any conditions, and were better artists for it.
"Nature is the best classroom, even if you have to paint wearing gloves against the cold or tie down your easels in the wind," says Barry, a 44-year-old Baltimore native and former high school art teacher. "In Wisconsin, I had a horse come up and smear a painting with her nose."
Pledged to paint the 48 contiguous states within a year, they've glimpsed America's soul with an intensity and perspective few have shared, immortalizing a Nebraska pig farm, sunflower fields in Minnesota, a Washington state apple orchard, the night lights of Las Vegas, a Texas oil rig.
And, along the way, they've been struck by the generosity of the American people and their almost childlike fascination with artists on the road, a combination that frequently led to free meals and lodging for the cash-strapped, color-splattered painters.
"We've only seen two other artists painting outdoors the entire trip," says Frank, a 31-year-old Netherlands-born painter who has lived in the United States since 1987. "It's just not a tradition here like in Europe."
Now back on the road after wintering for three months in the Florida Keys, the duo -- accompanied by Barry's photographer wife, Saundra Tkacs Stebbing -- hope to complete the remaining states by early September with a painting of the Statue of Liberty.
Their final harvest is expected to include nearly 300 oil paintings, several hundred watercolors, pastels and pen-and-inks, plus daily journals detailing every nuance of the trip and the wealth of color slides Saundra has taken during the journey.
The travelers will have put some 40,000 miles on their 1979 Ford van, Hannibal, the "tremendous animal of power" whose stubborn personality and penchant for breaking down at unexpectedly spectacular sites have made it a major force in the "Paint the States" trip.
"We'll make it," says Barry. "Remember, Van Gogh did 800 artworks in the last three years of his life."
And we know how smoothly that went.
"I know that nothing has ever been done like this before. Okay someone may have painted the United States, but did they do it in oils? And if someone has painted this country in oils, did they do three paintings of each state? And if someone has painted three oils of each state, was it accomplished by an American and a European doing the same scene, side-by-side?" -- Entry in Barry's journal, July 19, 1990
The idea for "Paint the States" began taking shape in Italy in the summer of 1986, when Barry Stebbing -- a Maryland Institute of Art graduate and teacher at Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, Md. -- met Frank van Latum, who at the time was creating watercolor landscapes under the sun.
An accomplished studio artist with oils and pastels, Barry was intrigued by the Dutchman's ease at working outdoors, and Frank was eager to experiment with the medium of oil painting.
"We painted together in the fields, working on the same subject from slightly different angles, each with our own way of seeing," says Frank. "He said it would be fantastic to paint this way every day, and both of us were crazy enough to take it serious."
Both work in the impressionist style, eschewing realism and detail for mood and color and space, imparting emotion and feeling to their art rather than intellectual distance.
But the aggressive, brooding Barry Stebbing paints sitting down, sticking the handles of his wet brushes into the earth as he intently creates. More of a fundamentalist, he carefully draws in his subject matter on canvas before beginning to paint, and his art exhibits thicker paint strokes and a darker use of color.
The blond, blue-eyed Frank -- also a poet and drama teacher -- stands as he paints, grasping all of his brushes in one hand and constantly pacing back from the easel to view his progress. There's a transparency to his work, with the white canvas serving as the light source for the bright colors he applies layer by layer.
"Painting is a discipline of learning to let the unexpected happen, to let colors live and paint create its own life," he says. "When I paint, I paint. I hardly think. When I just feel the mood, it comes natural, and sometimes magic happens."
In late 1987, he left behind a budding professional career and a serious romance in Paris to visit his new friend in Maryland. Barry quit his teaching job in 1989, and the two joined up in Key West to plan and raise money for "Paint the States."